The UK’s broken promises need mending at COP27

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By Professor Ian Thomson
Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Responsible Business, Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham

Businesses have to change and adapt if the UK is to reach its net zero targets and keep its COP26 promises. But they need governments to set an example with clear and consistent net zero measurements and policie

As COP27 takes place in Egypt’s Sharm-el-Sheik from 6 – 18 November, the meeting will offer the opportunity to do a global stocktake of the world’s progress sinch COP26 in Glasgow last year.

Central to COP27 will be assessing countries’ promises to “revisit and strengthen” their decarbonisation plans to help meet the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees by 2030. So far, only a handful of the UN’s 193 members – just 23 – have improved their plans and most of those (including the UK’s) were adding policy details rather than making their top-line emissions targets more ambitious.

The standout country was Australia, whose new Labor government submitted revised climate plans that took their emissions reduction targets from 26-28% of 2005 levels to 43%, putting it more in line with other developed countries. And while Indonesia and Egypt strengthened their targets, both made much of their ambition conditional on international finance, with Egypt also only including emissions from certain sectors of their economy.

There will undoubtedly be many broken promises from COP26, but this continuing controversy around Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs (as the UN refers to countries’ emissions targets), how they are measured and who should fund them could derail the whole Paris Agreement. At the moment, there is a systemic imbalance with how they are calculated. A country’s carbon emissions are based on their production, not consumption, which is grossly unequal and skewed in favour of richer Western countries that have outsourced much of their carbon-intensive industry and manufacturing to poorer countries where consumption per capita is much lower.

Indeed, while air pollution and climate change affect the health and environment of everyone, they impact the poorest most severely. The majority of the 8 million deaths each year from air pollution are in poorer countries, which also have the least resources to cope with extreme weather events. Moreover, notwithstanding that the vast majority of the 40% increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide since the 18th century is as a result of more affluent Western countries’ mass industrialization, the world’s richest 10% are still responsible for more than half of all carbon emissions through consumption today, while the poorest 50% are behind just 10%.

This is why many developing countries are demanding ‘climate reparations’ as a key part of any net zero plans by the UN, which would address this historic dimension to countries’ emissions targets and the injustice of the climate crisis’ disproportionate impacts. Such a compensation fund has been mooted by G7 politicians in the past, with Scotland and Denmark recently committing $15 million to tackle loss and damage at a global level. But the US and other major carbon emitters are yet to put any money on the table and the G77 group of 134 developing countries have promised to make it a crunch issue at COP27.

If the UN and its richer members can’t produce the necessary finances, they should at least commit to decarbonisation plans that are more holistic and consistent with each other so everyone knows what they are zeroing to. Currently, many countries’ plans are either inadequate, incomplete or full of caveats. The UK’s own net zero commitments are based on flawed, territorial measures that don’t include any emissions from imports or shipping let alone historic emissions. The Office of National Statistics alone uses five different methods for calculating the UK’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – each of them different and producing wildly varying results. If the UK’s carbon footprint was calculated based on consumption rather than production, for instance, its total emissions would be at least a third higher.

Unfortunately, having played host and led the way at COP26 in Glasgow with some of UN’s most ambitious net zero targets, the UK government appears to have been backtracking ever since. Despite high level recitations of the UK’s 2050 net-zero aspiration, there is considerable doubt, uncertainty and contradictory evidence of any real commitment to ‘levelling up’ or a just transition to a sustainable UK, let alone support for sustainable business transformation.

It’s clear that the current Conservative government now sees sustainability and the ESG business agenda as a low priority. Their prioritising of growth and deregulation, with a threat of return to the age of austerity, signals a lurch back to an unsustainable economic orthodoxy. Consequently, there is a real risk that companies in the UK will be looking to roll back their investment in ESG initiatives and their commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. A responsible government would be helping industry to stay the course during these turbulent times, not encouraging them to imitate their own short-termist, growth-at-all-costs approach.

Businesses have to change and adapt if the UK is to reach its net zero targets and keep its COP26 promises. But they need governments to set an example with clear and consistent net zero measurements and policies, not to chop and change and break promises. Standardised and robust measures of emissions are vital to combatting the climate crisis. And until everyone – the public, businesses, governments and UN member states – are all aligned and working towards the same standard, many net zero or even carbon negative targets will remain ineffective, prolonging the confusion and timeline of when we can expect to limit the damage of the climate crisis.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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